GREEN ROOM RUMBLE Endrick & The Sandwiches (independent) ****+
With the year it’s been and it being so close to Christmas a live, frenetic blues party on disc really hits the spot. Recorded live in 2019 and 2020 at Bistro a Jojo (Montreal), L’Enracte (Val d’Or) and Ursa, (Montreal), Green Room Rumble is a pile of mostly classic blues numbers covered with energy, humor, panache, and it’s irresistible.
Band leader Endrick Tremblay grew up in Mont-Tremblant, where he met many of the musicians who influenced him. He cut his teeth playing punk at house parties before being asked to join the Outsiders Blues Band, guys twice his age, steering him into a lifelong fascination with the blues. Endrick & The Sandwiches are a new wave blues act who avoid self importance while actively treating their audience to a hip shaking good time. Their approach to playing the blues is irreverent but never disrespectful, the joy with which they play is quite evident.
Green Room Rumble is 10 songs, covering material by blues legends like Willie Dixon, Slim Harpo , Junior Parker and Muddy Waters. The frantic yet controlled energy of The Sandwiches is really something to behold. Endrick (lead vocals, harp, guitars) and his musical compatriots bring a kind of rockabilly energy to the blues and it’s exhilarating. Their sense of humor is evident in their run at CC Rider, with the lyrics re-worked and sung by guitarist Greg “The Mac” McEvoy as PT Rider about equipment, chicks, and a PT Cruiser. As a former PT Cruiser owner, I particularly enjoyed that one.
Not being familiar with the venues where Green Room Rumble was recorded I’m guessing they’re fairly intimate venues as opposed to cavernous theatres or hockey rinks. That feeling of band and audience being in it together really comes across. Kudos to the sound, mixing and mastering engineers involved for a well balanced and frankly spectacular sounding album- of course, the source material they had to work with is pretty incredible. When I go to tabulate my best of 2020 list in the next few days, Endrick & The Sandwiches will be getting very serious consideration.
KEY CUTS: Mystery Train, PT Rider, Scratch My Back
BLUESWOMAN Nora Jean Wallace (Severn) *****
After a 16 year absence, Nora Jean Wallace is back. Blueswoman is Chicago blues of the highest order, and if anybody was ever born to sing the blues it’s Nora. Comparisons to Koko Taylor and Katie Webster are entirely valid; when she sings, the earth shakes.
“I left the blues scene to take care of my mom” says Wallace. “From the cotton fields of Mississippi to the bright and steamy windows of Chicago blues, she always supported me. And although she’s gone, she’s still with me. I thank God for all she instilled in- she always told me to put God first, never quit, and everything else will fall into place.” Pop and rock music are rife with examples of artists returning after a long absence only to be met with indifference from a fickle public, but that won’t be happening here.
Blueswoman was produced by Severn label head David Earl, who also plays guitar on 4 tracks. Backing her throaty, powerful vocals are the label’s A-list team of musicians, with award winning harp player Kim Wilson throwing down on one of the tracks. Her last album, 2004’s BMA-nominated Going Back To Mississippi was critically acclaimed, as I’m certain this new album will be too. The Chicago Sun-Times called her appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival “show-stopping”, and no less than Koko Taylor herself said at the time “Nora Jean sounds just like I did when I was her age!”
As with any genre of music there are many branches of the blues and this disc is straight up Chicago style, as delicious as that city’s famous deep dish pizza, and singing in front of a severely talented band doesn’t hurt. “During a very low period in my career, a friend reminded me that the Bible says your gifts will make room for you” Nora Jean says. “The gifts that have made room for me have come in the form of creative people who’ve helped me pave a new path in the blues.” I think she put it best in the title song; I tell y’all I’m a blues woman from my wig down to my shoes/ just like a wolf was born to howl, I was born to sing the blues. Blueswoman isn’t just good, it’s excellent-surely one of 2020’s essential blues releases.
KEY CUTS: I’ve Been Watching You, I’m A Blues Woman, Martell
SHADOW MAN John McLean & Charles Barkatz (Leaky Shoes Records) ****
Some Texas blues for you here, straight out of Austin. Produced by Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff and including a slew of that city’s all-star musicians, Shadow Man treads nicely in blues, jazz and roots territory with international flair.
This album came to be in a round about way, according to Kazanoff. “My good friend Alex Coke introduced me to his brother, John McLean in early 2019” he recalls. “John mentioned that he wanted to make a blues record in Austin with his Parisian guitar playing pal Charles Barkatz. I was a bit skeptical at first, not having heard of John or Charles in the blues world, but as John sent me their demo recordings over the next few months, I began to hear their beautiful and original take on the blues. Not your typical contemporary blues, this material focused on wonderful new poetic lyrics, and songs that created moods ranging from raw deep blues to jazzy almost impressionistic grooves.”
That there are so many avenues to travel down with John and Charles makes Shadow Man endlessly fascinating. Author and composer John McLean brings his talent on instruments like the flute to the table, along with theatre experience. As a jazzman, the Texas born artist has been the leader of several groups in Paris. Charles Barkatz, born in Paris, began playing classical guitar at 12 at a conservatory. Very quickly influenced by Muddy Waters, BB King, John Lee Hooker and Jimi Hendrix in particular, he started learning the blues on his own. Throw in a love for Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, and you have a pretty fascinating guitar player.
McLean does most of the singing on Shadow Man, the timbre of his voice reminding me very much of John Mayall. Charles does some singing too, with Lac D’argent (sung in French) being a highlight of the album. 5 of the 10 tracks were written by John with the other half being co-writes between the two. The mix of blues, funk and jazz, sometimes all at once, makes for a fascinating listening experience. I originally scored this album a bit lower because John isn’t a stronger singer, but as a disc with clever lyrics and adventurous musicianship deceptively disguised as simple blues, it grew on me along with everything else. Chill jazz with a blues heart; tres diggable.
KEY CUTS: Lac D’argent, Leaky Shoes Blues, Bathtub Blues
BAD MAN Martin Lang (Random Chance Records) **** ½
If you’re anywhere near my age, you’ll remember a time when you’d go flipping through the racks at your local record store and buy albums based on the cover art. When I was going through the pile of CD’s on my desk to review, this got my attention. Maybe it was the attitude of the cover photo but as far as a blues adventure goes, Bad Man lives up to it with room to spare.
Legendary Chicago blues artist Tail Dragger sums this dude up quite fittingly when he says “Martin, he’s got that weight, the tone, that’s what brings out that heavy blues feeling to it. He blow under your singin’ with that tone and he helping you, and you don’t have to work so hard. He’s heavy, man.” Take a good look at that cover photo again and try to absorb its feeling and intent. What you see on that CD is what the music on this disc feels like. When it comes to blowing blues harp, Lang has that greasy edge that can make a good song exciting.
The musicianship and production on Bad Man makes it a timeless album, like it could have come from any decade, although the guitar of Little Frank in particular has a bit of a 60’s feel to it, as does some of Gerry Hundt and David Waldman’s keyboard work. As a singer Martin Lang doesn’t have a ton of finesse but with music this raw that works in his favor. Gotta mention the other guys too; Billy Flynn (guitar/ mandolin), Illinois Slim (bass) and Dean Haas (drums). Together with Martin they make music that’s earthy like classic Muddy Waters with the kind of swing you’d expect from Booker T & The MG’s; in fact one of the instrumental cuts is called Booker’s Boogie.
From Martin Lang’s raw, overdriven harp stabs and solos down to Haas’s primal drumming, Bad Man is thrilling… as blue as blues can be.
KEY CUTS: Reefer Head Man, Bad Man, Mood Indica
BUFFALO ROCK CITY: WESTERN NEW YORK’S TRIBUTE TO KISS Various Artists (independent) *****
I’ve been a Kiss fan since first seeing the band on TV in early 1974. There have been over 50 tribute albums, and Buffalo Rock City is in the top 5 of that long list for me.
Buffalo Rock City is the brainchild of guitarist John Jeffrey from the Buffalo-based tribute band Kiss This!. When I talked to him yesterday (feature length article coming next month), he said the idea first surfaced in 2014, when his band and the group DoDriver were doing gigs in Niagara Falls, New York. They started talking about how Kiss has to keep playing (mostly) the same songs to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and wouldn’t it be great to hear some of the deeper cuts and B-sides live.
As the idea of doing a tribute album picked up steam Jeffery decided that profits from the set would go toward The Compass House Foundation, an organization in Buffalo that provides runaway, homeless and street youth with safe shelter and services in an environment that supports dignity, respect and self- reliance. This informed his choice of songs to cover, the ‘non-cock rock’ numbers. “While Kiss is famous for their tongue in cheek innuendo” he notes, “it made sense to record songs which resonate with the struggles some people may experience, day to day.” So you’ll hear Kiss songs on Buffalo Rock City you won’t find on other tributes.
Rather than screw with the arrangements it was decided that the songs would be played as authentically and faithfully as possible. Once the track list was drawn up, to create a solid foundation ALL the drum and bed tracks were recorded in the same studio on the same day, giving Buffalo Rock City a consistent feel and weight throughout. One of the things Jeffrey dislikes about tribute compilations is that the material comes from many different sources, so the sound quality can vary wildly.
The disc involves many Buffalo are musicians plus people from a national level like Robby Takac (Goo Goo Dolls), Tommy Henriksen (Alice Cooper), Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (Guns N Roses) and Mitch Weissman (Beatlemania) who sings on a song he co-wrote with Gene Simmons for the Animalize record in ’84. Another legendary figure in ‘Kisstory’, engineer Jay Messina, mastered Buffalo Rock City; liner note nerds like me will note that Jay engineered and mixed Destroyer and Dynasty and co-mixed Unmasked, the cleanest, best-sounding albums in the entire Kiss canon.
All that aside, Buffalo Rock City flat out ROCKS. From the Destroyer inspired cover art by Psycho Circus comic artist Kevin Conrad to the song selection to the muscular performances themselves, any Kiss fan will be thrilled with this album.
KEY CUTS: Jungle (DoDriver), Black Diamond (Bumblefoot & Deen Castronovo), Hard Times (John Jeffrey)